Despite studying languages at school and deciding to continue French and Spanish to degree level at UCL, I feel that I have learnt more about language learning during the last twelve months than any other time of my life. I have just spent six months studying in Lyon, France, and sixth months studying in Granada, Spain, and I wish to share some of what I have learnt during my time away, which I will try to hold onto for my future language studies:
1) Studying abroad can be extremely daunting and stressful, especially before it begins and you have to find accommodation, fill out tonnes of forms, sort out visas, bank accounts and foreign phones etc. One of the most important things to remember is to stay calm no matter what and always ask for help if you are unsure about anything: It’s amazing how helpful people can be when they are asked. So, ask anyone you know who has been to the destination previously, read blogs online, research the best bank accounts and phone companies, join Facebook groups and chat to people going and do as much as you can to find out as much as you can before you go, and keep organised.
2) Commit to the language: Speak as much as possible, make mistakes and learn from them, always ask questions, don’t be scared to be wrong. I think this is one of the most important things to remember when going abroad. To really progress in the language it involves a gradual process requiring a lot of commitment: Try to speak only in the target language, ask questions to shopkeepers, teachers, anyone you can find – interacting is key and can end up being really fun and rewarding. Write to-do lists in the language, read the news and magazines, listen to podcasts, go to the cinema and speak as much as possible: You will inevitably make mistakes (and language learning is probably one of the toughest mistake-making exercises out there), however you have to make mistakes to progress, and the more mistakes you make, the more you learn, and the quicker you progress. So don’t be afraid, step out of your comfort zone, have fun and commit yourself to the language.
3) Take responsibility for vocabulary and grammar learning: There will never be a good time to sit down and learn vocabulary and go over grammar rules (yes it’s know to be quite boring), but it is fundamental to progression and it’s so much more rewarding when you realise you can remember words further down the line and the grammar pieces fit together. Therefore, every single day, try and make sure that you keep learning vocabulary and if you have any grammar queries, make sure you ask sooner rather than later (either ask people or useful languages websites online – trying several different ways can often clarify the query more). The most important thing to remember is that language learning is an ongoing, never ending process: even the majority of English speakers have to look up the meaning of English words every now and then, so always make an effort to learn vocabulary and find exciting ways to remember words and grammar (perhaps with a group of friends, colour coding, images, and word by association). Ultimately the only person who can learn and remember the words is you, so responsibility is essential to progression, and you can never know enough about a language.
4) Learn about the culture, which is just as important to the language. Imagine learning English without knowing who Shakespeare is, who the Beatles are, or that we have a monarchy? Language is very much linked to culture and the more you know about a culture the more aspects of the language make sense and the more enjoyable it becomes, especially when travelling to a destination which you know more about. Knowledge of literary figures, history, politics, key issues and debates in the culture can unequivocally enhance language learning and travel.
5) Finding language exchange partners can be extremely rewarding and helpful. In Lyon and Granada I went to several language exchange evenings and I found exchange partners on websites which are fantastic ways to not only improve your language speaking skills, but also make new friends who are native to the cultures you wish to learn about. Normally most people also wish to improve speaking English so it can be very rewarding helping others to improve their English and also to learn what difficulties and common questions foreigners have when learning the English language. As well as improving speaking in the foreign language, you can also ask direct questions about the culture, music, books and events which you may otherwise never have known about. By chance, one of my exchange partners from Lyon has come to London this year to study so we can now meet up in London and continue to help each other improve.
In conclusion, although language learning can be hard work and it takes an enormous about of endless commitment to the language and culture, I believe it is one of the most worthwhile things to do with your time on earth. Learning another language automatically opens a door for communication and connection with thousands of new people, and it provides the opportunity for a deeper experience when travelling abroad. It is like a long hard climb up a mountain: the views just keep getting better and better the more you commit and the harder you work. So I urge anyone thinking of learning a language to throw away any negativity and doubt, and start (or keep going!) now.
Learning languages Abroad was written by a Tavistock Tutor